Elsa Schiaparelli: When Surrealism met Haute Couture

Elsa Schiaparelli was one of the most renowned fashion designers of the 20th Century. Born 1890 in Rome. This Italian trailblazer broke all conventions and rules at the time and even imbued her clothes with humour (the bra picture is a nice example), this was largely due to her appreciation of the surrealist movement. While Surrealism turned the art world on its head, why not have Surrealism turn fashion into more tangible pieces of art? Schiaparelli even collaborated with the Arch Duke of Madness (my title of him) Salvador Dali, they created four pieces for her collection including her famous Lobster dress.

Between the two World Wars, the only rival to Schiaparelli’s prominence was Coco Chanel (Chanel referred to Schiaparelli as ‘That Italian artist who makes dresses’. It makes sense that these two would butt heads. While Chanel’s work was classical and tasteful,Schiaparelli was extravagant and eccentric. They could not have been more different. When you get two powerful, alpha bitches who’s style is so different, plus the competitiveness, it does not make for a friendly existence.

If history will remember Schiaparelli for only one thing it has to be her iconic perfume ‘Shocking’. This bottle design was based on the bust of Mae West and has since been copied by Jean Paul Gaultier. Not only this she gave the world Shocking Pink.

Greta Garbo, Mae West, heiress Daisy Fellows and Wallis Simpson were some of the famous bodies to the clothed in Elsa’s vision. When WWII broke out, Schiaparelli elected to move to New York and become less involved with the design of that were distributed.

After the WWII Schiaparelli reamerged  from her hibernation to finds that the world had changed (Christian Dior’s New Look was in full swing), the need for outrageousness was replaced with a more restraint, sombre approach. Austerity and Elsa didn’t work and on December 1954 Schiaparelli closed the door on her label .

Chanel appeared to have won the war of haute couture. This is not to say I dislike Chanel, far from it. She gave use plenty of staples for out wardrobe that will never date. Certainly her bags impressive and very desirable! Still I have a real fondness for the iconoclastic approach that Schiaparelli took, and if I had been alive and could afford it, I would have loved to own one of her pieces. Now that Schiaparelli fashion house has been resurrected it is going to be interesting to see how a new generation will interpret Elsa’s ‘outside the box’ style.


Elsa hat

Schapirelli Rose Dress

ES bra

shocking perfume

marlene dietrich

ES evening



  1. I love Man Ray’s fashion pictures, and there’s a video on youtube of Dali’s swimwear designs. I love Elsa too

    1. Thanks for that, must be glorious.

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